Senate Republican leaders sharply warned President Trump not to fire Robert S. Mueller III on Tuesday — but they once again stopped short of embracing legislation to protect the special counsel.
Their reluctance to take more-forceful action came as Democratic leaders voiced new urgency about shielding Mueller a day after Trump said he had been encouraged by some to dismiss the special counsel. At least one rank-and-file Republican endorsed moving forward soon with a bill to protect him.
But Senate GOP leaders were not budging from their position against taking preventive action, underscoring the downside they have long seen in being too confrontational toward the leader of their party. Even at moments of great uncertainty about what Trump will do next, congressional Republican leaders have opted not to further agitate him.
“I haven’t seen clear indication yet that we needed to pass something to keep him from being removed, because I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell did not elaborate on why he believed that.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McConnell’s top deputy, said he also didn’t believe Mueller would be removed. Asked why, he replied: “I think the consequences of doing so are some that not even the president can anticipate. And I think it would be a mistake.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) issued Trump a sharper warning. He said on Fox Business Network it would be “suicide for the president to want, to talk about firing Mueller.” The less the president said about it, Grassley noted, “the better off he would be, the stronger his presidency would be.”
Grassley has refused to consider a pair of bills released last year to protect the special counsel before they were merged into one. A combined bill that a bipartisan group of senators has been working on would institute a 10-day delay before any order from a top Justice Department official to fire a special counsel could take effect, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the legislation.
The ousted special counsel would have those 10 days to appeal the decision to a three-judge panel before the termination is complete. The bill also would require that all staff and documents be preserved during that window.
“I think we’ve got a compromise,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who proposed one of the bills last year. “But I’m not worried about Mueller being fired.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who co-sponsored the other bill, said he supported bringing up legislation in the Judiciary Committee. But he did not embrace the urgency of his Democratic colleagues, who have tied it to the president’s escalated rhetoric and the raid on the office, home and hotel room of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
“I want to separate me continuing to have the dialogue and get to a bill from, like, ‘It’s got to be passed by midnight tomorrow, or all is lost.’ I don’t buy that,” said Tillis, who added that a bill could potentially be brought up as soon as “the next couple of weeks.”
According to a congressional aide familiar with negotiations, a merged bill has existed for months. It is not clear whether the compromise legislation, when finalized, will satisfy Grassley, however. He has raised strong constitutional concerns about any bill that subjects a president’s executive authority to hire and fire a special counsel to judicial review. Supporters of the legislation say there is case law that says it is constitutional.
Mueller and Trump became major topics of conversation on Capitol Hill the day after the FBI’s seizure of privileged communications between Trump and Cohen, as well as documents related to a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress who has alleged that she had a sexual affair with Trump a decade ago.
“I think it’s a disgrace what’s going on. We’ll see what happens,” Trump said Monday after reports of the FBI raid. Speaking of Mueller and himself, Trump said: “Many people have said, ‘You should fire him.’ ”
The FBI raid of Cohen’s office was part of an investigation referred by Mueller to federal prosecutors in New York. Mueller has been conducting an expanding investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. At the Justice Department, it is the responsibility of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to decide whether to expand Mueller’s mandate to include a new topic or to refer it to a U.S. attorney’s office.
“He’d have to fire Rosenstein first,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said of Trump. “I’m not worried.”
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that Trump “certainly believes he has the power” to fire Mueller.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged Republicans not to ignore “the elephant in the room” and to act now to protect Mueller. He said that firing Mueller would cross a “red line.” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said, “We ought to do a lot more.”
Top Democrats huddled in Schumer’s office Tuesday to discuss their plan in the wake of Trump’s comments. But because they do not control the Senate, there is little they can do to compel action unless a groundswell of Republicans join their outcry.
Asked if Democrats had any leverage to force the issue, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) demurred.
“I accept virtually every Republican senator who’s made a comment on this,” Warner said. “This would be the end of the Trump presidency if he were to take this precarious action.”
Some congressional Republicans forcefully defended the president. In doing so, one mentioned Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“Think about the double standard,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on Fox News Channel. “Yesterday we had the FBI raid the president’s private attorney’s residence and business. That’s privileged information. And yet when Hillary Clinton had some 60,000 emails, [attorney] David Kendall had possession of those emails. They got to decide … which ones were personal.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close Trump ally, said: “It’s time to get this investigation over. This thing is spiraling out of control.”
Even some Republicans who have been willing to criticize Trump tried to tamp down the fallout from his remarks.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she remained confident that Rosenstein would not take steps to terminate Mueller. “If the president were to fire the deputy attorney general, that would be an extraordinary crisis and a real problem,” she said. “And I just don’t think he’s going to do it.”
Mike DeBonis and David Weigel contributed to this report.